The Vancouver Whitecaps have lived and died off set pieces in 2017.
A clinical performance Wednesday helped the franchise to its first-ever playoff victory.
Cristian Techera scored on a stunning free kick before Vancouver poured it on late in a 5-0 drubbing of the San Jose Earthquakes in Major League Soccer’s single-elimination knockout round.
The Whitecaps scored 15 goals off dead-ball situations during the regular season and added three more in what turned into a dominating night after some early jitters.
“If you work hard at things you get your rewards,” said Vancouver head coach Carl Robinson. “We’ve got the takers, the deliverers of balls, and we’ve also got people who can get on the end of things.
“Anyone who comes by our training sees the amount of work we spend on it.”
Nicolas Mezquida, with two, Fredy Montero and Kendall Waston had the other goals for Vancouver, which had three losses and a draw in four previous post-season matches since joining MLS in 2011.
“I’m delighted for everyone involved with the football club tonight, and everyone involved with the city,” said Robinson. “We needed a little bit of success, and we got a little bit of success today.
“But that’s all it is.”
The third-seeded Whitecaps will now face the Seattle Sounders, who finished second in the Western Conference and won last year’s title, in a home and away aggregate semifinal that starts Sunday at B.C. Place Stadium.
“We’re playing against the champs,” added Robinson. “We know we’re going to be underdogs. I like the underdog role.”
After setting up Montero’s opener in the first half, the pint-sized Techera curled a left-footed free kick over the wall and into the top corner from 30 yards out past a helpless Andrew Tarbell in the 57th minute to send the crowd of 21,083 into a frenzy.
Waston added Vancouver’s third goal seven minutes later off a corner after the ball pinged around the San Jose penalty area before being bundled over the line.
Mezquida, who subbed on in the 68th minute, then scored in 78th and 80th to complete the romp as the Whitecaps scored five times in a game for the first time this year.
“There were a number of top-class performances,” said Robinson. “The heart and the desire and determination to want to win the game … the boys don’t quit.”
Montero gave Vancouver a 1-0 lead in the 33rd minute after a nervy opening when Waston redirected a Techera corner right to the designated player, who made no mistake from in close.
The Colombian striker said he’s never been on a team that has relied this much on set pieces for offence.
“This is something unique,” said Montero. “We should keep believing we can keep hurting teams with this weapon.”
Vancouver returned to the MLS Cup playoffs after missing out by eight points in 2016, while sixth-seeded San Jose made the post-season for the first time since 2012 thanks to Sunday’s dramatic 3-2 stoppage-time victory over Minnesota United.
The Whitecaps could have avoided Wednesday’s winner-take-all encounter with a victory over the Earthquakes at home on Oct. 15 in a game that ended 1-1, or by grabbing at least a draw in a 2-1 weekend road loss to the Portland Timbers.
Vancouver instead limped to the regular-season finish line with a 1-3-1 record, but were full marks on this night.
“We talked about set pieces being a huge key,” said Earthquakes head coach Chris Leitch. “That was the element that was really our Achilles heel.”
San Jose had a decent opportunity to equalize while down 1-0 less than a minute into the second half when Whitecaps goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic had to be sharp on Chris Wondolowski’s shot from in tight, but after a couple more half chances, that would be it for San Jose.
With the stadium’s retractable roof open on a chilly evening, Vancouver started tentatively and was almost made to pay in the fourth minute when Anibal Godoy forced a leaping save out of Marinovic on a free kick from 25 yards out.
The hosts looked nervous with a number of errant passes and giveaways early on, but started to play better as the half wore on and looked the more likely side to score when Montero finally broke through.
“You saw what it meant to the players and the club,” said Robinson. “We were so determined to get that first playoff win, and we did.
“Did we do it style? Yeah, we probably did.”
Notes: The Earthquakes’ bizarre regular season that included a minus-21 goal difference — good for third-worst in all MLS — saw the club get outscored by two goals or more in 12 of its 14 defeats by a combined score of 42-6. … Since the league expanded its playoff format in 2011, five of the 16 teams to advance from the knockout round have made the MLS Cup, with three clubs winning it all, including the last two years.